Early on in September of this year, I walked down Wall Street, admiring the new walkway that now takes the place of the street between Harkness Hall and the Beinecke. In my four years at Yale, I walked this path many times on my way to class, on my way to Blue State, on my way to Siliman to meet a friend for a meal, on my way to the NROTC unit on Whitney Avenue, on walks with friends. This was my first time returning to campus after I had graduated months earlier, and being back immediately reminded me of difficult times — of emotional anxiety — that I left behind when I moved out of Davenport in May. Reflecting on my life beyond Yale and in my short time as a postgraduate, I have come to recognize this environment as the source of many of my mental health struggles. I offer solace to those who struggle here. Life outside of this university can be better for you, emotionally and mentally.
Even though I made genuine friends and discovered my academic passions at Yale, this was also a place that evoked my anxiety, depression and insecurity. Before attending Yale, I had seen a therapist off and on in high school; I was struggling in an unhealthy relationship with an ex-girlfriend. But I never considered myself someone who had anxiety or depression until I came to Yale.
During my first year on campus, I developed strong feelings of social anxiety. Around 3 p.m. almost everyday, I worried about who I was going to have dinner with. I feared that I would end up eating alone. On the weekends, I worried about who I was going to hang out with or whether I had enough social events planned. And I would always choose being around other people over being alone. Every Sunday, I felt the need to plan out my whole schedule for the week, in fear that free time would mean that I wasn’t doing enough work — that I didn’t have enough friends or that I didn’t have enough interests. Everything became inherently competitive and forced.
During the rest of my time at Yale, this anxiety ebbed and flowed. Sometimes the anxious thoughts would be as overpowering as feeling awkward and lonely in just walking to class by myself. However, a common thread throughout my entire Yale experience was the constant urge to compare myself to others. How many friends did they have? How close were they to their friends? What groups were they in on campus? I tried to dismiss these anxieties by telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling this way because college should be some of the best four years of my life. But this only worked to spur my anxiety in the notion that I was wasting my precious time at Yale by being consumed by these thoughts.
Recently, my happiness outside of Yale has caused me to reflect on the cultural aspects of campus that I found toxic. For my first three years at Yale, I struggled in my living situation. I did not feel that I fit in with the girls that I was placed with my first year but chose to remain in the same suite as a Sophomore and Junior. Looking back now, I attribute a lot of this personal tension in my living environment to insecurities in my sexuality and the pressing sentiment that my suite was not a comfortable place to be open about being queer. I was also in the unique position of being in NROTC at Yale. In NROTC, I felt a lot of pressure to conform to values and standards that did not always align with my personality and integrity. I felt that my mental health was undervalued, and I struggled in accepting my depression and anxiety within this pseudo military organization. More generally, I felt that Yale’s campus culture did not see me for the strengths that I value most in myself: my empathy and my compassion. I felt pressured to view my worth in measurable ways: my grades, my connections with professors, my internships, my research, my group of friends, etc.
Reflecting on my time at Yale, there are changes that I would have made personally to alleviate some of this struggle on campus and changes that I hope to see in Yale’s campus culture in the future. First, I encourage students to find a therapist they connect with. At Yale, I often felt that I did not have the time to devote to finding a good therapist. I now realize that I needed to make time, because my mental health problems took away from so many different aspects of my life. Secondly, as hard as it may be, I encourage students to find their individuality by developing a social life separate from friend groups, exploring interests separate from campus extracurriculars and finding time to devote to self-love. On a structural level, I would love to see Yale acknowledge the difficulty of making friends and the exclusivity of Yale’s social world. As a FOOT leader, I brought up these discussions with my first years so they would know they were not alone when they felt insecure and lonely on campus. But this conversation should be encouraged not only among first years but across all class years. I found that Yale’s culture was one that stifled conversations of struggle; many students are reluctant to admit that they are going through a hard time, that Yale is not what it is cracked up to be, or that they do not feel that they belong on Yale’s campus. Because these conversations were not happening, I felt alone.
I am now in Washington, D.C., working as a Public Policy Fellow at The Foundation for AIDS Research and living with one of my closest friends. Free of Yale’s stressors, I find myself having much more emotional and mental space and energy to engage in personal interests outside of competitive campus extracurriculars, to foster meaningful and genuine relationships outside of an exclusive social environment and to devote time for self-care outside of a campus that demands your constant productivity. In conclusion, my life outside of Yale is not one that is free of stress, pain, anxiety or struggle, but rather a life that affords me the time, space and energy to thoughtfully reflect on difficulties I face and work through them in a healthy way.
KATHERINE KUENZLE is an alumna from the class of 2019. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .